8 January 2001
Sugar quotas, drugs and red herrings

JOSHUA LARCOMBE raises a new issue – drugs. A neat debating point, but like many debating points, a red herring (and daft and inaccurate – see below). But he sidesteps the two main aspects of his original message.

First, quotas.

The protection of sugar beet growing since 1945 bears a remarkable similarity to the Corn Laws of 1815 and 1828, approved to maintain the high prices reached during the Napoleonic Wars.

Over the protests of landowners, these Laws were finally repealed in the 1840s, because consumers protested about the high price of bread.

To come up to date, Vauxhall is to stop making cars at Luton, with a net loss of 2000 jobs all in one town (a consequence of excess capacity worldwide in the motor industry).

To be consistent, protectionists should support quotas or penal tariffs on imports of foreign cars – indeed, on all imported goods that compete with something that could be produced domestically.

This return to the 50s would at least have the merits of consistency, but it would spell disaster for a trading nation.

Be honest. The real purpose of quotas and similar forms of protectionism, for whatever product, is to make consumers or taxpayers pay to maintain the income of producers at an artificially high level.

And be realistic. Were a Chancellor Portillo to reintroduce 1950s protectionism, in addition to keeping the Conservatives promise to cut both taxes and spending, the economic mess would be so serious that he would quickly return to opposition.

Between 1990 and 1995, farm incomes in the UK doubled. Farmers took the credit for this, ignoring the effects of Government support and the price distortions and protection of the unreformed CAP of the European Union, but now lay the blame for a fall of 60% since 1995 squarely at the door of Government and Brussels.

Surely the fall of 20% worldwide in commodity prices, including food (The Economist, 25 November, 2000, p130) has something to do with it?

What about the market consequences of BSE and numerous other food safety problems?

The public has realised that these problems were the outcome of an input-intensive business model, highly-profitable when shored up by subsidies, embraced by the majority of farmers, welcomed by big agri-business and “big” science, and blessed until quite recently by agri-bureaucrats in Whitehall and Brussels.

This cosy alliance was noticeably slow to accept the need to rethink the model.

Nor does Mr Larcombe address his own inconsistency in slagging off the current Government. It has merely purloined the economic policies that an earlier Government applied so decisively and ruthlessly.

The closure of coal mines in the Welsh Valleys, Nottinghamshire and Yorkshire, and of docks in Liverpool and east London, destroyed the way of life of entire urban communities, and left far more people unemployed than are now going bankrupt in farming.

Did farmers join the miners on the picket lines, or did they cheer when a loaded handbag flattened Arthur Scargill and his battalions?

Do farmers now expect a Grateful Nation to treat them any differently?

It was that same Government which signed the Maastricht Treaty and which first started to bang on about the need to reform the protectionist aspects of the CAP.

Did farmers all go out and vote Labour in protest?

Answer on a postcard, please.

Now, to drugs.

First, irrelevant. Why should British consumers pay over the odds for sugar – or for anything else – because Country X, Y or Z produces drugs?

And second, daft. Why stop at sugar? Slap import quotas on Californian Chardonnay, because marijuana is the most valuable cash crop in California. Ban coffee from Colombia (they produce much, much more cocaine), and subsidise production under glass in Norfolk. Support Mugabe, because white Zimbabwean farmers grow tobacco, which happens to be legal but causes more health damage in Britain than cocaine.

And third, inaccurate. Mr Larcombe should point first to Europe as “one of the largest nations for producing illegal drugs”.

The biggest increase in drug abuse recently has been in synthetic amphetamine-type stimulants (ATS), consumed by 30 million people worldwide, more than for heroin or cocaine.

More than half the laboratories producing ATS are in Europe (World Drug Report, United Nations, 1997, pp23 and 31).

Bolivia has ceased to be a major drug producer since Mr. Larcombes fathers day.

It just happens to be the only country in the world to reduce to negligible levels, if not entirely eliminate, the area producing raw material for drugs.

This success (at gunpoint: try that in California) received official plaudits from the United States, the United Kingdom and the EU at an international meeting this week.

Why did coca leaf-growing in Bolivia increase so much in the 1980s, before the drastic reduction since the mid-1990s?

Several years of drought in the highlands made things even more difficult for peasants scratching a living from food crops. Their market was further depressed in 1985 by the closure of nearby mines when the world price of tin (Bolivias major export at the time) collapsed, putting thousands out of work.

A new road into the lowlands made it easy to migrate to an area where conditions are ideal for the coca bush. Prohibition (which failed for alcohol in the USA, and is now failing for drugs) helped the price of the raw material back here, although most value is added in processing and distribution networks outside Bolivia.

The big question now is: what will peasants and ex-miners do now they will be imprisoned if they plant any coca?
Timothy Painter, La Paz, Bolivia
tpainter@ceibo.entelnet.bo


  • Sugars not Bolivias only crop, FWi Open Season
  • Multinationals always the winners, FWi Open Forum
  • Level world playing field, FWi Open Forum
  • Sugar quota – the view from the Third World, FWi Open Forum
  • Sugar – do something to stop quota cuts, FWi Open Forum
  • EU sugar plan could slash beet prices, FWi, 01 December, 2000
  • Plan to open sugar trade threatens big quota cuts, FARMERS WEEKLY, 17 November, 2000